Henry Waskow, the Captain Immortalized by Ernie Pyle

Captain Henry Waskow died on December 14, 1943 far from home. He was killed on a mountain named Monte Sammucro near the town of San Pietro Infine overlooking the Liri Valley. His company had been reduced to the size of a platoon, but they still went on the attack. The men had come under enemy shell fire, and shrapnel hit Henry Waskow in the chest. It took three days for Henry Waskow’s body to come off the mountain

Henry Thomas Waskow was from Belton, Texas. His parents were German immigrants; cotton farmers with eight kids. He worked his way through college and followed his two older brothers into the Texas National Guard. When WWII came, Henry Waskow was in command of B Company, 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment of the Texas 36th Infantry Division. He was a compassionate and able leader, a man who cared for his men and treated them fairly.

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Captain Henry T. Waskow

Henry Waskow and his company saw war on the invasion beaches of Salerno and in the mountains of Italy. Waskow never gave orders, he asked his men and they followed him because they loved him.

Waskow was hit near a tree line heading toward a ridge called Hill 730. After he was killed, his driver, Riley Tidwell, went down to report his death. Tidwell came back with the mules that carried the bodies, stiff and cold, down the mountains. On his trip, Tidwell ran into Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent for Scripps-Howard. Pyle waited, with other men, at the base of the mountain where the bodies of the slain were brought. Pyle was touched by how the men dealt with death. How they saw their comrades laid out before them day after day. With Henry Waskow it was different. He wasn’t their comrade; he was their captain, their father in a family of fighting men. Pyle saw how the men said goodbye to their beloved commander and he wrote it down so others could see it too.

FRONTLINES IN ITALY-In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved and respected by the soldiers under them. But never have I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Capt. Henry T. Waskow, of Belton, Texas.

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Insignia of the 36th Infantry Division

Captain Waskow was a company commander in the 36th Division. He had led his company since long before it left the States. He was very young, only in his middle 20’s, but he carried in him a sincerity and a gentleness that made people want to be guided by him.

“After my own father, he came next,” a sergeant told me.

“He always looked after us,” a soldier said. “He’d go to bat for us every time.”

“I’ve never known him to do anything unfair,” another one said.

I was at the foot of the mule trail the night they brought Capt. Waskow’s body down the mountain. The moon was nearly full at the time, and you could see far up the trail, and even part way across the valley. Soldiers made shadows as they walked.

Dead men had been coming down the mountain all evening, lashed onto the backs of mules. They came lying belly-down across wooden pack saddles their heads hanging down on the left side of the mule, their stiffened legs sticking out awkwardly from the other side, bobbing up and down as the mule walked.

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Mount Sammucro

The Italian mule-skinners were afraid to walk beside dead men, so Americans had to lead the mules down that night. Even the Americans were reluctant to unlash and lift off the bodies at the bottom, so an officer had to do it himself, and ask others to help.

The first one came early in the evening. They slid him down from the mule and stood him on his feet for a moment. In the half-light he might have been merely a sick man standing there, leaning on the others. Then they lay him on the ground in the shadow of the low stone wall alongside the road.

I don’t know who that first one was. You feel small in the presence of the dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions.

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War Correspondent Ernie Pyle

We left him there beside the road, that first one, and we all went back into the cowshed and sat on water cans or lay on the straw, waiting for the next batch of mules.

Somebody said the dead soldier had been dead for four days, and then nobody said anything more about it. We talked soldier talk for an hour or more. The dead man lay all alone outside, in the shadow of the stone wall.

Then a soldier came into the dark cowshed and said there were some more bodies outside. We went out into the road. Four mules stood there, in the moonlight, in the road where the trail came down off the mountain. The soldiers who led them stood there waiting. “This one is Capt. Waskow,” one of them said quietly.

Two men unlashed his body from the mule and lifted it off and lay it in the shadow beside the low stone wall. Other men took the other bodies off. Finally there were five, lying end to end in a long row alongside the road. You don’t cover up dead men in the combat zone. They just lie there in the shadows until somebody else comes after them.

The unburdened mules moved off to their olive orchard. The men in the road seemed reluctant to leave. They stood around, and gradually one by one you could sense them moving close to Capt. Waskow’s body. Not so much to look, I think, as to say something in finality, to him and to themselves. I stood close by and I could hear. One soldier came and looked down and he said out loud, “Goddammit.” That’s all he said, and then he walked away. Another one came. He said “Goddammit to hell anyway.” He looked down for a few moments, and then he turned and left.

Another man came; I think he was an officer. It was hard to tell officers from men in the half-light, for all were bearded and grimy dirty. The man looked down into the dead captain’s face, and then he spoke directly to him, as though he were alive. He said:

“I’m sorry, old man.”

Then a soldier came and stood beside the officer, and bent over, and he too spoke to his dead captain, not in a whisper but awfully tenderly, and he said:

“I sure am sorry, sir.”

Then the first man squatted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for five full minutes, holding the dead hand in his own and looking intently into the dead face, and he never uttered a sound all the time he sat there.

And then finally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.

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